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The protagonist of the novel is Billy Pilgrim, a mild mannered man who takes life as it comes, without complaining and without trying to control it. Although he becomes a successful optometrist, marries Valencia, and has two children, he never really takes charge of his life. Instead, he allows fate to control him and time traveling to direct him. When the Trafalmadorians come to kidnap him, he goes out to meet them, doing nothing to stop his capture. When he tries to tell the world about the Trafalmadorians and their philosophy, he is judged to be insane, especially by his daughter, who blames his crazy stories on his head injury received in a plane crash.
Billy's antagonist is really himself. He is too weak to control his life; instead, he allows fate to rule his existence. Although he has the ability to time travel, he does nothing to control his journeys and lives in constant dread of where he is going to find himself next. He also dwells on the horrors that he experienced in war, which seems to trigger his time travels back to war-torn Germany.
The climax occurs when Billy is shot before he ever masters his fate or convinces others of his captivity on Trafalmadore or his ability to time travel to the past and to the future.
The story ends in tragedy. Billy, never able to fully take control of his life, is judged as insane. As he speaks at a public appearance, he is killed by an assassin, hired to revenge Roland Weary's death.
In spite of the tragedy of his life, there are three positive notes in Billy's existence. Before his death, he does try to teach others about Trafalmadorian philosophy, which he believes is beneficial; unfortunately, he is judged to be insane by most who hear him speak. Through his time travels, however, he knows that someday in the future the truthfulness of his stories will be accepted. Billy also travels back to Dresden and is happy to see that it has been rebuilt and has become prosperous. It allows him to end his traumatic war memories on a more positive note.